The past year, I’ve waded through countless online discussions about “the left” failing to connect with disaffected young men, resulting in these men embracing right-wing ideology. Writers, community organizers, podcasters, YouTubers, and academics have all weighed in (some in good faith, others not so much).
The online imbroglio looks something like this: a public figure scolds “the left” for not appealing to lonely and isolated young men, some people dismiss this accusation as bad-faith while others engage by writing on a variety of topics, ranging from the economy to a lack of free and accessible public spaces. The “alienated young men” discussion has become a Rorschach test for which issues are top-of-mind for the writer. I don’t think that’s a bad thing; it’s good for us to write about what we know.
In sticking with that advice, I won’t be sharing insight on the lack of community many young men suffer, or what positive models of masculinity could look like. But I will be sharing from my experiences as a woman who volunteers and works within the Delaware left, as someone whose work requires building relationships and trust within local movement spaces, as someone who initially got involved as a way to find community and friendship, and as someone who has both experienced and witnessed repeated anti-social and misogynistic behavior from young men in these activist circles.
I’ve spent a significant amount of time and energy dealing with the fallout from sexual harassment and other forms of misogyny committed by men within the local left movement. This has meant processing my own response to harassment, trying to create safe spaces for our women and nonbinary volunteers who’ve experienced inappropriate behavior, advocating for victims, and lobbying for what I thought was the right path forward in dealing with the perpetrators.
Peppered throughout these instances of explicit misogyny, I’ve also had to navigate a slew of (almost entirely) men engaging in profoundly anti-social behavior. I don’t want to do a disservice by flattening all of these behaviors into an amorphous category of “poor male behavior,” but in the interest of thinking through a positive model of inclusion and explicitly feminist spaces, I’ll be including as examples both the out-and-out misogyny and the broader anti-social behavior.
As some of the acute problems within my orbit have subsided (for now), I’ve begun to shift from reactively dealing with this behavior to thinking proactively: what does it mean to create a positive community on the left here in Delaware when many of the folks looking for community have, as Jonathan Smucker puts it in his book Hegemony How-To, “overwhelming psychological needs,” and our organizations and individuals don’t always have capacity and/or willingness to work with the folks perpetrating harm?
I didn’t write this essay to point fingers. I wrote it because building an inclusive, feminist community is important for the individual, the collective, and the movement. I hope this essay will encourage folks to discuss, plan, and work in new practices to build the Delaware left we all deserve.
Background: This is a universal, inescapable problem
The Delaware left doesn’t exist in a vacuum, so even though we might believe in equity, we are still susceptible to all of the bigotries that pervade our society, including misogyny. It certainly stings worse when these acts are committed by people on “our side,” but if our goal is to secure real wins by organizing our communities, we’re going to have to navigate all of the same oppressive dynamics in our groups that exist within our broader communities.
As our organizations expand in scope and membership, our chances of interpersonal conflict and mistreatment also rise. This is especially true in a growing ecosystem like the one we have in Delaware. If we want to reshape politics, we need more people to join the struggle, and that means working with a big tent of folks who will disagree on strategy, politics, and community norms. Plenty of people might join a team because they care about an issue but lack the interpersonal skills to work with others in a way that’s productive.
These problems are especially salient because the work of organizing requires that we build strong personal relationships with members of our organizations. It’s our job to show people that we care about them and build social cohesion, whether that’s through one-on-one meetings or large social events. Even in the context of project-oriented meetings, the process of naming our shared values and working together towards a common goal brings us closer into community with each other.
Unfortunately, this proximity and emotional openness can lead people to treat organizers with a sense of familiarity or shared desire that isn’t actually there. This can look like unwanted romantic advances, but it can also look like men burdening women in the group with their therapeutic needs while saving all the “serious” political conversations for their fellow men. This phenomenon is not new. During the Civil Rights era, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizers published a paper titled “Women in the Movement” detailing sexist discrimination, such as women only being assigned administrative or menial work. Teams that don’t prioritize community norm setting and individual check-ins are particularly at risk of letting this behavior run rampant.
Defining anti-social behavior and misogyny
Before sharing more about the specific challenges within Delaware’s ecosystem, I want to define what I mean by anti-social behavior and misogyny. During the last few years, I’ve noticed a few clear patterns among the offenders. Most of the perpetrators of misogynistic and anti-social behavior have fallen into one of three categories: nihilistic leftists, incels, and corporate-mindset leaders.
First, the “nihilist left.” These are folks who have joined our teams out of anger against the current political system yet have no interest in considering what we might build in its place. They hold a calcified ideology and political analysis rooted in the desire to destroy the system, and they have no interest in working with folks who don’t share their desire to “burn it all down.” These folks are stingy in offering others the benefit of the doubt and often believe that being rude to anyone who doesn’t buy into their political analysis is actually a virtue.
Doomerism is very common with these volunteers, which ends up bleeding into their cavalier approach to interpersonal relationships. They often express feeling hopeless about our state’s and country’s future, but because they lack social-emotional supports and appropriate coping skills, they’re unable to process their feelings. Instead of using their despair as motivation to build a nurturing, supportive community, they use it as fuel to draw others into their suffering.
Ultimately, in my experience, these people care foremost about their own enjoyment. They are incredibly cynical in their approach to relationships, which often leads them to manipulate others to produce funny social media content. The reason nihilistic culture is so toxic to the broader left movement is precisely because its adherents find more personal satisfaction through destroying the communities they latch onto.
Although deeply anti-social, there is nothing necessarily misogynistic about their ideologies. However, because they fundamentally don’t respect others, they’re typically willing to embrace “ironic misogyny” (or ironic racism, or ironic homophobia) for laughs. In my experience, the vast majority of complaints about these men’s behavior have come from women, and when spoken to about these complaints, the men are unwilling to examine their beliefs and actions.
Next, we get to the incels. A portmanteau of “involuntary celibate,” incel refers to a loose collection of individuals who are unable to find romantic or sexual partners despite desiring them.1 Fortunately, the number of incels we’ve had to deal with locally has been low.
However, the growing number of incels in society at large should serve as a warning for our organizations. Incels have come into our organizations focused on picking up women.
When women reject these men’s advances, they turn manipulative, aggressive, and even threatening. In my experience, a closer look at their personal and online lives reveals an ongoing pattern of inappropriate behavior. Even if they have done good work in the past, their deeply anti-social and misogynistic beliefs and actions will always cause them to be more of a hindrance than a help.
Finally, there are the corporate-mindset leaders. These folks often come to Delaware’s movement spaces from traditional corporate organizations, where relying on traditional hierarchical leadership traits is rewarded. They have a tendency to replicate these behaviors in movement spaces: projecting an air of all-knowingness and gravitas, inflating their contributions to a project when speaking publicly, and wanting to be “in charge” of work for the sake of optics when it’d make more sense for someone else to bottomline the project.
This crew doesn’t consciously hate women like the incels, but they struggle to understand how their internalized gender biases color their approach to people of different genders. Which folks do they typically condescend to or straight-up ignore? As usual, women and nonbinary people!
Of course, every case is different. With all three cases, I think it’s important to ask ourselves what it would take to get these folks to work in community with an explicitly inclusive, feminist movement.
The Delaware-specific structural context: Growing pains in the ecosystem
In addition to the universal challenges of navigating a patriarchal world, Delaware’s very young social change ecosystem2 presents some extra difficulties, namely folks taking on roles before they have the needed skills and a lack of process, accountability, and supportive infrastructure when harm does occur. When I run through a list of the misogynistic and anti-social behavior perpetrated in local movement spaces, almost every instance was either aided or compounded by these two factors.
First, Delaware’s rapidly growing social change infrastructure means that there are lots of roles to fill and sometimes not enough folks with the knowledge, skills, and experience to fill them. I don’t think this is inherently a bad thing. We have the amazing opportunity to develop and train new leaders instead of relying on the same few white men to head our groups. Giving folks the opportunity to try and fail is incredibly valuable to their growth, and therefore the growth of the movement. As someone who has taken on a number of responsibilities and roles I wasn’t “ready” for, I’ve learned much more from my failures than from any training I’ve taken. However, I was fortunate to be working within a set of mutually accountable relationships where we prioritized reflection, commitment to shared goals and values, respect, and a desire to work together in the long term.
Across several electoral campaigns, issue campaigns, and organizations, I’ve seen the following play out: someone (usually a man) takes on a leadership role where he lacks the skills and/or knowledge to execute the role’s core responsibilities. By nature of the Delaware left’s size and interconnectivity, these new leaders are put in close contact with other teams and organizations very quickly. But when other organizers across the ecosystem react by trying to intervene and offer support, guidance, or constructive critique, the new leader reacts poorly. The leader will either ignore the feedback outright, listen but not act on it, or become incredibly defensive or dismissive.
The pattern I describe isn’t inherently misogynistic, but after cycling through the same few steps with several new leaders, it’s clear that:
- These men are less likely to listen to criticism from women.
- The emotional labor of soothing these men when they become defensive typically falls on women.
In one specific example, I worked with a field organizer who was young and eager but lacked the emotional maturity and interpersonal skills needed to work with a diverse group of volunteers. As a result, he alienated several people from partner organizations who interacted with him. I tried to intervene with guidance, more structure, and clearer accountability norms, but he refused to accept feedback. Instead, he sought out women on the team to alternate between trauma dumping and telling us that we weren’t giving him the emotional support and care that he needed to do his job. It was clear that he had serious trauma he needed to process, and he deserved the space and resources to take care of himself, but without an organization-wide effort to redirect these folks’ expectations and behavior, the burden to soothe (and deal with the blowback from) these men will continue to fall on unsuspecting women.
I don’t want to ascribe nefarious motivations to all of these leaders: I think that many of them genuinely wanted to help the movement by taking on extra work and responsibility. While some of these men have exhibited sexist behavior, I don’t believe this is purely a problem of hopelessly misogynistic or anti-social men. This is fundamentally a problem of a lack of clear and universal community norms, mutual accountability, and agreed-upon values. We can and should continue to challenge ourselves by taking on new tasks and roles, but without a shared understanding of our connection to and dependence on others within this ecosystem, folks’ anti-social and oppressive tendencies are given free range.
We’re all learning, and none of us are perfect. Still, we can’t allow people’s transgressions to go unaddressed and make other volunteers feel unsafe for the sake of avoiding uncomfortable conversations.
The second challenging factor is that much of our ecosystem’s infrastructure has been built in the last six years, and many teams and organizations have been constructed in response to identifying and trying to fill gaps on the fly. In a way, this is good — we are able to build new things to our exact, desired specifications rather than trying to reshape existing structures. However, if we’re building the plane as we fly it, the lack of existing process, infrastructure, and examples to draw from can make matters that much harder for people who might not naturally excel at confronting poor behavior head-on.
For example, I was involved with a sexual harassment case where a male volunteer had messaged several women and non-binary volunteers in an increasingly inappropriate and threatening way. The ordeal revealed to us that we hadn’t yet established a written policy for dealing with this type of behavior, nor did we have a formalized process for ensuring that victims were supported and protected from the harasser’s retribution. Though we were able to build some scaffolding to deal with these events, the process and support network for victims was cobbled together through labor done largely by the victims. After a number of tough conversations, I do believe that we as individuals and as a collective are now better equipped to deal with harassment cases in the future. However, I’d wager that our organizations will face similar growing pain episodes down the road as we expand our membership and scope of work.
The Good: How the desire to be in community is a powerful tool
Before closing this essay with some suggestions for what it would look like to work within a more inclusive, supportive, and explicitly feminist ecosystem, I want to offer a silver lining: the reason we are in this situation is because so many folks are seeking community.
Community is a powerful driving force for people to get involved and stay involved in our project. I know about feeling lonely and disaffected from the status quo — a desire for friendship motivated me to get involved with Network Delaware as much as a desire to reshape our politics. And it’s worked! I’ve made wonderful friends who’ve enriched my life, pushed me to grow, and driven me to keep at this work. And it’s not just me; lots of wonderful volunteers have joined our organizations and teams looking to connect with others. Strong community is good for the individual, the collective, and the movement.
The incredible value that social cohesion and community bring to our work is precisely why we can’t afford to alienate folks by allowing misogyny and anti-social behavior to fester in our spaces. The work ahead isn’t going to be an exercise in excluding volunteers or demanding perfection, but rather a chance to expand our organizations to be more inclusive. Being more direct in how we address this behavior is fundamentally about putting in work to bring people closer into healthy community with each other, not about “punishing” the offenders.
The Proposed Solution
Going forward, I hope to play a role in helping our community work through these harmful behaviors and build a more supportive, inclusive, and accountability-focused infrastructure in Delaware. We have lots of room to grow in calling people in (or out) to address their behaviors, creating temporary separation from perpetrators while they work with a mentor to understand the harm they created and plan to make amends, and fostering a more permanent space for folks to put in the work to unlearn sexist behaviors.
A good first step would be to analyze our current situation:
- What are our existing structures, resources, skills, and capacity when it comes to accountability?
- What is our vision of what an explicitly feminist movement would look like?
- Do we have the collective political education to articulate our vision of feminism?
After this analysis, we can set out our tasks in the short term. I suggest starting with an honest reckoning of what type of support our organizations do and don’t have capacity for. If we are honest about our capacity as organizations to handle the work on conflict and harm mediation, we can in turn be honest with both the victims and perpetrators. Some possibilities are:
- We have capacity for a single mediation session but can’t provide a long-term action plan and coaching for the man who perpetrated this harmful behavior.
- We only have capacity to work with folks over the long-term who are consistently hitting the goals in their action plan and demonstrating how serious they are about their growth.
- We ask that these men do the work on themselves elsewhere and return after a certain length of time.
Being open and honest with all parties will help us to set boundaries without making these men feel unsure about where they stand or what we are asking of them.
In addition to performing this analysis of our current capacity, I think we can commit to two additional norms in the short term that will greatly benefit our organizations:
- A more explicit commitment (both individually and as a collective) to naming these misogynistic behaviors when they occur
- A discussion with volunteers and staffers alike about setting firmer boundaries around communication with other volunteers.
These boundaries are important not just to protect ourselves as individuals, but because each person who sets boundaries against their own harassment can empower other volunteers to demand that respect and space for themselves as well.
As we look to the long-term, we will need to build new structures to provide accountability, support, and learning for folks who come to movement spaces with anti-social and/or misogynistic tendencies. We would benefit from having members trained to de-escalate some of the more radical forms of misogyny, as well as support programs where men can work to unpack their connection to patriarchy and talk through more positive models of masculinity. Our organizations should also lay out a real, concrete process for repairing harm. What does it look like for someone to take responsibility for their misogynistic behavior, make amends, and put in the work to prevent a similar incident in the future? And if someone is not willing to put in this work, how can we as individuals and as a group navigate the process of setting boundaries and creating separation in a way that’s fair, respects the humanity of all parties involved, and still provides a future opening for the perpetrator to come back into the community? Most importantly, who can step up to work with these men and support them every step of the way?
I’ve come to write this essay out of love for my organizations, my community, and a sincere belief that misogynistic and anti-social incidents don’t define our work or organizational culture. I’ve witnessed so much generosity, empathy, and patience from folks of all genders within our movement spaces, and I know we can create stronger accountability, norms, and structures to deal with this behavior.
And we don’t have to wait for the “perfect incident” to start the work ahead of us. At this moment, there are men guilty of the behavior I’ve detailed who are attempting to join or rejoin our movement spaces without having done the reflection, learning, or made the amends that a restorative justice framework demands. The good and the bad news is that none of us can unyoke ourselves from the patriarchy, so there will always be an opportunity to practice our feminism by creating safer, more inclusive movement spaces.
1For more information on incels, read “Involuntary Celibacy: A Review of Incel Ideology and Experiences with Dating, Rejection, and Associated Mental Health and Emotional Sequelae” (Sparks, Zidenberg, and Olver) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9780135/
2When I talk about Delaware’s “very young social change ecosystem,” I am referring to a massive growth of new organizations and first-time volunteers within these organizations since 2016. However, as exhibited by the 19th century abolitionists, the early 20th century suffragettes, Wilmington residents resisting the 1968 National Guard occupation, and former ACORN organizers, the fight for social change in Delaware is not new.